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Some Baptists Are Eroding Religious Freedom

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Jon Meacham, the esteemed Newsweek religion columnist, is right when he says that calling into question Mitt Romney’s faith is “bad for all of us.”

Now, before anyone immediately starts to object that I need to keep my opinions strictly in the realm of spiritual matters and not delve into politics, please hear me out.

After all, we Baptists historically have had quite a claim on this matter. And, I feel compelled to write about it because recently a Southern Baptist pastor, in introducing one of Romney’s GOP opponents, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, called Mormonism a cult and opined that Romney is not a Christian.

Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megapastor, told reporters that “those of us who are born-again followers of Christ should always prefer a competent Christian to a competent non-Christian like Mitt Romney.”

In other words, Romney’s religious faith should preclude Christians from voting for him.

However, in further remarks he let it be known that even Romney would be a better choice than the sitting president, who is an avowed Christian.

This only serves to show that Jeffress’ motivation is less to promote Christian principle than it is his own personal politics.

Since we both share the name “Baptist” – Jeffress and I – if not the same way of going about actually being Baptist, I feel it is right and good to seek some correction on this matter.

Regardless of one’s feelings about Mormonism, what needs to rise to the top of our concern as Baptists ought to be the free exercise of religion … even for those who aspire to the highest office in our land.

You’ll find it right there in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Baptists were instrumental in securing the First Amendment, but now are in danger of being identified with those who seek to render it meaningless.

When the day comes that a religious test is imposed on those who seek public office, that which we historically have stood for will not only begin to crumble but will fall in a mighty heap.

Our nation’s founders saw the wisdom of freedom of religion and speech, and we would do well to follow their example.

Roger Williams, who founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, R.I., believed that the wall of separation between church and state should protect the church from the corruption of the state – one of his major concerns.

Now, the danger is that the state (or government) needs to be protected from the influence of the church – or at least from the influence of certain churchmen like Pastor Jeffress.

Of course, this kind of rhetoric is not newly plowed ground for the former Massachusetts governor to have to endure.

In his campaign three years ago, Romney said: “Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office is this: Does he share these American values: the equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another and a steadfast commitment to liberty?”

You do understand, I hope, that no opinion expressed here is an endorsement of anyone for any office of any kind.

It is a defense of a timeless principle that has served our nation well for almost 250 years.

It’s time for Baptist voices to speak up, and just as true, it is time for Baptist ears to hear.

Randy Hyde is senior pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark. His sermon manuscripts appear on EthicsDaily.com.